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Power is shifting. Queen Elizabeth I is dying, James waiting to become King. Everywhere, there is opportunity to ascend.

But who will thrive, and who will fail, under the new King? Will it be the scholar Francis Bacon, whose brilliant mind is the envy of the royal court? Or his hated rival the attorney Edward Coke, already acclaimed as the greatest lawyer of his generation?

The Winding Stair tells the gripping story of these two founders of our modern world and their battle for power, pre-eminence – and the hand of the most eligible woman in the realm. Combining humour, wit and imagination with deep research, this novel is a dazzling synthesis of history and fiction that takes the genre to new places. It is an epic tale of jealousy and intrigue in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, which, in its lowest moments, holds a darkened mirror to our own contemporary politics.


“The narrative, constantly changing between past and present tense, is reminiscent of Hilary Mantel’s storytelling. Norman creates a similar historical atmosphere from meticulous research… Norman is a man of many parts … to which now must be added novelist. He writes with a deep knowledge of parliament – ‘the happenings, the plots and counterplots, the subterfuges and stratagems’. This tour de force reflects his direct experience of the winding stair.”

The Spectator

“I read two books this year that were impressive and enjoyable: both qualities equally important to me – as what is the point of being impressed if you don’t enjoy yourself? One was a historical novel by Jesse Norman, The Winding Stair (Biteback). The story of Francis Bacon, it fairly whizzed along and left me feeling happy but as though I had rushed up and down many Tudor and Stuart staircases in my turn ... With both these stout, well-written books to hand, you could escape any family Christmas for an hour or two daily, going back in time and being utterly engrossed.”


Antonia Fraser, The New Statesman

“Go to The Winding Stair for superb exercises in pseudo-golden-age English prose, for ingenious historical and political analysis of a significant rivalry in a fascinating period and, of course, for insights into the mind of one of the few remaining Conservative MPs to add more lustre than disgrace to the whip he takes.”

The Literary Review

“Masterly … I loved every page. The perfect sequel to Wolf Hall.”

Andrew Roberts

“An absolutely thrilling read. How does someone of deep intelligence, integrity and thoughtfulness navigate the corruptions, ambitions and duplicity of a parliament crammed with nothing but sycophants, place-servers and creeps? This is an engrossing and compelling blend of political thriller and pitch-perfect historical novel.”

Stephen Fry

“An Elizabethan House of Cards.”

Michael Dobbs

“Extremely impressive … The portraits of Bacon and Coke, the subtle but deadly clash of characters, the minefield of royal favouritism, the elegant corruption, the whole conveyed in the beautiful language of the era, brings that world to life in an extraordinary way.”

Antony Beevor

“A pacy retelling of the story.”

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch FBA

“A remarkable tour de force which perfectly captures the essence of the story with uncommon ingenuity. Can there be a more fascinating tale in the whole of English history?”

Professor John Baker FBA

“This immensely clever, elegant and captivating novel shows just how closely fiction can align with history. It breathes the air of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean court and takes us utterly into their world. One might even suggest that Jesse Norman is the true inheritor of Hilary’s mantle.”

Suzannah Lipscomb

“Richly informed by historical research, The Winding Stair expertly captures the bitter rivalries of court politics and the ugly reality of political power.”

Ruth Scurr

“That rare thing: a historical novel that feels true to the period yet never slavish to its sources. Norman is a fine writer who will take you to the very edge of the action and hold you there, utterly transfixed.”

Daisy Dunn

The Winding Stair is a masterly study in ambition, intrigue and revenge that breathes new life into historical fiction … It has all the page-turning urgency and intensity of Wolf Hall but (with respect to the latter’s late author) is both better researched and better written. Above all, it is more original.”

The Critic

“If good history requires imaginative sympathy, Jesse Norman must be reckoned a first-rate historian … Norman almost certainly comes closer to the truth than a conventional biographer would have done … It is a serious book for grown-up readers. The reward is a brilliant disquisition on how our legal and political systems came into existence.”

Daniel Hannan, ConservativeHome

“A dynamic political thriller and an evocative character study.”

History Revealed

“Norman understands the interplay of power and influence innately.”

Alexander Larman, The Observer

“A dazzlingly learned meditation on English law and political philosophy at the turn of the 17th century, disguised as a gripping thriller about the feud between two deadly rivals … The Winding Stair is not only a brilliantly unsparing portrait of political ambition but also a fascinating account of the emergence of the law as a brake on the power of the executive … Gloriously clever [and] a delight to read.”

Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times Book of the Week

“It is with an eye fixed firmly on the present that Norman takes readers through this tale of Machiavellian chicanery, legal quandary and political crisis.”

Financial Times
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  • Paperback, 496 pages
  • ISBN: 9781785908606
  • 11 June 2024
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  • £10.99
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  • ISBN: 9781785907920
  • 1 June 2023
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